Louisa pressed her nose to her stockings and sniffed. They were still damp, but didn’t have the musty odor from being wet inside her portmanteau. As she had waited for her food and the bath the previous evening—the latter of which had never appeared, despite the assurances from Giant Johnny—she had hung what items she could by the fire to dry out.
Setting the stockings by the fire again to give them a few more minutes, Louisa examined the room in a manner the darkness had not allowed last night. And she was glad it had not. Spider webs adorned the walls and ledges, a thick layer of dust covering the window hangings and floor; her footprints clearly marked every space she had stepped. The window glass was covered in such grime that she doubted the curtains were necessary. She had felt the thinness of the mattress, pillows and covers during her fitful sleep, but was still unprepared for the cold reality in the light of day. Indeed, she may have been just as comfortable on the floor.
The table where she had picked at her inedible supper was scratched and stained; one of its legs had been poorly replaced, which explained the wobble the night before. The chair was no longer matching, if it ever was, but at least it had held her weight steady. The tray remained on the table, more unappetizing in the morning than it had been when it first arrived, a fact that Louisa had not thought possible.
Grimacing, Louisa returned to the fire and repacked her portmanteau before pulling on her stockings. Standing, she smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress and stepped into her slippers. She pulled on her cloak and lifted her bag, intent on leaving. She may not have much coin to her name, but she did have standards. Surely there was another inn within walking distance.
Lifting her chin, she marched to the door and opened it with a yank. She let out a shriek as a large body and a chair tumbled toward her, arms and legs flailing. Jumping out of the way, she managed to not have her toes crushed as Giant Johnny sprawled at her feet.
“Ouch! Bleedin’ hell,” he cursed, curling up on his side and holding his head.
“Mr. Taylor!” Louisa dropped her bag and knelt beside him. “Are you injured?”
“What do you think?”
She blinked at the pained growl coming from him and sat back on her heels. “Well, judging from your ability to speak, I should think you will survive.”
He glared at her from underneath his hands. “Would you?” His voice was flat.
“Whatever were you doing outside my room?” she asked.
Another glare and a grimace as Giant Johnny—the alliteration pleased her for some reason—rolled himself into a sitting position. “I told you I would keep you safe. I slept against your door to ensure none would bother you. I have no illusions of the morals of drunkards.”
She blinked again, taken aback by his actions. “I see. I suppose you leaned the chair against my door, thus causing your imbalance when I opened it.”
“You suppose correctly.”
“Perhaps in the future you will find it prudent to lean against a more stationary object, such as the wall.” Louisa rose to her feet and clasped her hands in front of her.
“Perhaps I shall.”
“Nevertheless, is there anything I can assist you with?” she asked. “A cold compress for your head, perhaps?”
He moved his fingers gingerly to the back of his head. “I think that is unnecessary. I have suffered”—he winced as he fingered a sensitive spot—“worse knocks to the head than this.”
“But not while in the service of my protection.”
A little unsteady, he rose to his feet and righted the chair that he had fallen on. “The reason for the injuries does not increase them, Mrs. Brock.”
“No,” she allowed, “but my subsequent obligation is now a factor.” Her eyes followed his movements as he straightened. Good Lord, but the moniker “Giant Johnny” was highly appropriate. The man was a mountain. A fleeting thought crossed her mind about what it would be like to have those large arms encompass her.
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Think nothing of it. You had no reason to expect me to see to my promise in such a manner.”
“Still . . .”
He spied her packed portmanteau and looked at her questioningly. “You are moving on? I thought your plans were unconfirmed.”
Louisa lifted her chin. “They are. But that does not mean that I must stay here in order to solidify them.”
He put his thick hands on his hips, doubling his width. “But it also means that you do not have to leave in order to do so either.” She opened her mouth to speak but he stayed her with his hand. “I understand what it is like to be adrift. If you wish, you can remain here. It is clear that I need help, a woman’s help.” He gestured to the room. “I have little notion and less inclination for cleaning. I need someone to take charge in this area. Will you do it?”
Louisa stared at him. Help him by being a maid? In an inn? Of all things she had considered doing, working in such a place had never crossed her mind. She was not suited for such work. A governess, companion, yes, but a maid? What would her mother have said about this? Or any of her family?
She pressed her lips together and lifted her chin. It had been six years since she allowed her family to influence her and this job would at least keep her protected from the elements. She would be able to protect herself from the more unruly patrons, she was certain. It would be hard-earned coin, to be sure, but the current condition of her moneybag would not object to whichever manner she earned more. It would indeed present the biggest challenge she had yet faced, but how hard could it be?
“What say you, Mrs. Brock?”
His voice drew her out of her thoughts. Regarding him thoughtfully, Louisa knew better than to just accept his offer. “What sort of benefits could I expect?”
“Proper wage, meals and a room.” His answer was quick.
“How many meals?”
“How many does the average person eat?” he countered. “Three by my count.”
Would her stomach survive three meals of such fare? She nodded. “This room? Or a smaller one in the attic?” She had slept in her fair share of small rooms as a governess; she would fight for the biggest one she could get.
“This one is fine. This is not a busy inn, so it can be spared.” He rubbed his bald head. “My room is behind the office, so you will never be alone on the premises.”
Hm. “I see. Free days?” Not that she expected to need them. She knew no one in the area and had no plans to inform her friends—her former friends—of where she was.
“Once a fortnight.”
“And my duties?”
“Cleaning, of course. Helping out in the kitchen and pub when necessary.”
“Was last night a typical crowd?” she asked.
“Yes. Local men come here regularly. There are not many places a man in this area can go to.”
“And the women? I am curious.”
He shrugged his boulder shoulders. “None have yet to come in here. I don’t cater to their tastes.”
Louisa sniffed and glanced around the room. The condition truly was atrocious. If the other rooms were like this, it would take days of hard work to get them up to scratch. It would be an accomplishment to be proud of, if she succeeded.
Ha—if I succeed? I always succeed.
She looked back at Giant Johnny, watching her with his hands on his hips, legs braced apart. She eyed him. He stood like a sportsman, sure of his ground and his strength. A sliver of awareness slipped through her at the confidence he exuded. This man was capable of many things, she was certain of it.
And if she were to agree to his offer, she would be with him every day. This mountain, this behemoth, would have authority over her as her employer. It was not the proximity to the giant that worried her, it was that last fact.
It rankled. For so long she had wished for independence, had almost achieved it with her friends and the formation of the Governess Club, only to have it collapse underneath her. And now she found herself once again having to submit to a man’s authority.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. She would have to trust that she would eventually be able to turn the situation to her advantage. Nodding, she said, “I accept the position, Mr. Taylor.”
A large smile broke out over his face and he offered her his hand, engulfing hers when she placed it in his grip. “Excellent. Start with breakfast, will you? Packard is already in the kitchen and he can whip something up for you. Then we’ll talk work. Find me in my office or in the pub.”
Breakfast? Her stomach turned at the thought. Good Lord.